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Poll: Americans oppose Trump’s withdrawal from a US-Russia arms control deal

Arms control is popular!

The US Army launches a Pershing II battlefield support missile on a long-range flight down the Eastern Test Range at 10:06 a.m. EST. This is the forth test flight in the Pershing II engineering and development program and the third flight from Cape Canave
A Pershing II missile launch on February 9, 1983.
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

By a margin of 18 percentage points, most Americans would rather stay in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty with Russia, according to a poll taken after news broke that the Trump administration is abandoning the accord:

Forty-nine percent of respondents wanted to stay in the treaty, compared to only 31 percent who supported leaving. The treaty currently bars certain medium-range (between 310 and 3,400 miles) missiles launched from the ground, and is intended to prevent nuclear arms races on the European continent, like the one that brewed in the early 1980s.

The poll by Civis Analytics and its data scientists Michael Sadowsky and David Shor reached 5,643 likely voters from Saturday, October 20 to Monday, October 22. The question asked by pollsters explained the basics of how the treaty worked, noted the news that Trump is withdrawing, and explained the basic cases for and against leaving. Here’s the exact question language:

President Trump announced his intentions to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). This treaty, signed by the US and Russia in 1987, prohibits the US and Russia from possessing and manufacturing medium term range ballistic and cruise missiles for the delivery of nuclear weapons. Supporters of withdrawing from the treaty say that Russia has been in violation of the treaty, and the US should no longer handicap itself by continuing to abide by the treaty. Opponents of withdrawing from the treaty say that doing so could lead to a return to the nuclear arms race of the cold war and potentially nuclear war. They say we shouldn’t take that risk. Do you think the US should remain or withdraw from the INF?

The responses broke down along broadly partisan lines, with Trump supporters backing his decision to leave the treaty, Clinton supporters dissenting, and people who voted for other candidates or who didn’t vote breaking in favor of the treaty:

Civis often works with Democratic campaigns and was founded by Obama campaign veterans, but the poll has a remarkably large sample and uses a non-biased question, which gives me confidence the results are valid.

As my colleague Alex Ward explains, the INF treaty dates from December 1987, as part of President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s broader arms control efforts when Gorbachev attempted a political thaw in the Soviet Union. It specifically bans the countries from deploying ground-launched missiles with ranges between 310 and 3,400 miles, carrying either conventional or nuclear payloads.

The nuclear arms control community by and large supports remaining in the treaty, fearing that withdrawal could weaken the broader arms control regime. Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and former Sen. Sam Nunn, both highly active on nuclear issues, argued in a statement that withdrawal is “one more step toward a very dangerous confrontation that could lead — including by accident, mistake, or terrible miscalculation — to what would be the final failure: the use of a nuclear weapon for the first time in over 70 years.” Other arms control experts, like the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s Alexandra Bell and the Stimson Center’s Michael Krepon, concurred.

But, as Ward notes, some experts consider the treaty outdated, not least because China, which isn’t party to the treaty, has been fielding weapons of this type, and because Russia is widely believed to not be complying. Bush administration veteran Kori Schake, who wants to remain in the treaty, nonetheless argues there’s a strategic reason for the US to deploy conventional missiles in this range in Asia, which is currently prohibited.

Obviously, most Americans don’t have detailed views on specific arms control treaties; even on more high-profile economic policy disputes, few Americans have stable opinions. But the polling nonetheless suggests that the public is broadly supportive of international agreements to limit arms. If Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton move to undermine other important arms control deals, like the New START agreement that Bolton opposed and whose renewal he’s currently negotiating, the American public will quite likely oppose them.

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